A Delightful Day!

The first blooms of the year!

We had a big thunderstorm during the night, with crashing thunder, brilliant lightning and strong winds. After lunch today, I bundled up, donned my boots and went out to see if there was any damage. What a lovely surprise to find this cluster of “Cream Beauty” crocus in the Deck Garden outside the back door. I hurried back inside for my camera, took a photo, and then just stared at them in wonder. Yesterday there had barely been 1/2″ of tiny green tips showing, and yet today there are flowers! I found a few more in the Front Garden, but no clusters, just a single bloom here and there, and not along the edge where I’d planted them. The squirrels have been rearranging again.

These dwarf blue iris were hiding under a mound of leaves!

Back in the Blue Garden, which is in a very shaded but protected spot along the east wall of the house I spotted a bit of blue. When the leaves were removed a pretty cluster of dwarf iris were revealed. Be still my heart! Around the house to the Addition Garden, which showed a few tulip leaves with their red shadings pushing through the mud but no blooms of any kind and further down to the Fairy Garden Slope, I spotted lots of miniature daffodil foliage emerging.

The chives are suddenly 2″ tall!

Across the very soggy lawn, which this morning had more resembled a creek, I checked the potager’s exterior borders for any signs of color, but there was nothing. Inside the potager’s fence, however the rows of garlic were clearly apparent, and the little clump of chives in the interior border shown above had magically appeared. Most of the beds are empty, except for spinach, which seems to have grown since yesterday, some bunching onion which actually had some green appearing, and the strawberries which still look brown. However, in one bed a surprise awaited.

Even though it isn’t orange, I’ll gladly keep it!

This little volunteer viola seemed a bit shy, with its down-turned face, but maybe with a little more sunshine she’ll gain confidence. All of the violas planted along the potager’s main paths for the past four years have been orange, or the apricot and purple duo, but as you can see, this little self-seeded beauty is a cheery yellow. Seedlings often differ from their parents, but this little one will be loved just the same.

So, the 2020 Bloom Record has begun, with today’s blossoms listed under March 3rd. It, and a few glimpses of sunlight today have brightened not only the gardens, but my outlook as well. I think the transplanting in the basement will begin tomorrow, so my seedlings will be ready in timely fashion. Winter isn’t going to last forever after all!

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February 2020: Monthly review

It’s been a gloomy month.

Overall, February was a wet, gloomy month. The gardens showed very little change. When it wasn’t snowing, it was raining. Of 29 days, the sun shown on Ground Hog Day (of course) and three others (when the ground was snow-covered.) Temps ranged from single digits at night to a high of 54. Without sunshine and warmth, there was very little growth. In past years, there have often been lots of flowers, chives to use, and some gardening underway. Not 2020!

These crocus haven’t grown at all this month. Hopefully that will change soon.

What’s a gardener to do besides dream and plan? A tad of retail therapy helps a bit. The abundance of wet days reminded me that my beloved garden shoes were no longer waterproof, so here are the replacements! Orange flowers! Could anything be more perfect for me? I’ve already been wearing them when I’m watering, filling flats, or seeding in the basement.

These Sloggers will keep my socks dry!


The Bluebird wholesale catalog tempted me to order some replacement perennials, especially after a walk-about that showed several “old reliables” have perished during this wet winter. I’m already planning to dig some drainage ditches to divert water away from some of the worst areas, and adding a couple of water barrels, which should help with that problem. These will be small plants, but hopefully they will be part of the plan to covert some of the area now used for annuals into perennials. (Yarrow, tritoma, primulas, orange coneflowers, white tall phlox)

The February seeding schedule was completed, with a total of 49 varieties sown. Everything has germinated nicely except some very old parsley seed and the alchemilla. There’s going to be an abundance of onions this year, if they don’t rot like last year, since every seed germinated. Surprisingly, the transplanting has not even begun. Last year, 500 babies were in individual pots by month’s end. I need to get motivated, but I think the memories of the terribly late, wet spring last year have encouraged me to not push things.

The February harvest was minimal, just a half pound of spinach from the poly-tunnel, because it too is not motivated to grow. So, the 2020 total to date is a meager 1.75 lbs. Thankfully, there’s still an abundance of food in the freezer and pantry shelves.

And, thankfully there has been a lot of good reading (I finished all the Jacqueline Winspear books plus several others, but none garden-related, which is strange for me.) and good basketball games (although most of my favorite teams aren’t doing well.) That’s the non-exciting report for February. Hopefully the March report will prove better, and that there are flowers blooming in your garden, wherever you are!

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Wishing for Spring…

Despite snow on the ground, it’s time for a cheery Easter bunny! My dad cut out the wood for it many years ago and fitted the tiny hinges so it can sit on a shelf, stairway or fireplace mantle.

Or maybe, BECAUSE of the snow on the ground, it’s time for a colorful Easter bunny! Yes, winter continues and the need for color is urgent. The spring wreath has been hung in the entryway, and the books on the antique sewing machine changed from the dark greens and reds for Christmas to bright spring greens and yellows. The crocheted daffodil doily my cousin made for me is on the living room table. If there were no snow, there would only be 1-2″ tips of daffodil foliage, so we must rely on artificial blooms in a yellow pitcher on the kitchen shelf to soothe the soul.

The bunny teapot has taken the place of honor on the kitchen table.

I’ve written before, and shown photographs of most of my spring decor, which basically remains unchanged each year. There is a comfort in bringing out those dearly-beloved items from the past to help me look toward the future, when the grass will again be green, and rows of seedlings will fill the potager’s beds. It feels lovely to have the power to change my indoor views, when I can do nothing about the view outdoors.

It’s time to put a sweet potato in a jar to root!

It’s time also to carry on some of the family gardening traditions. Yes, I can purchase sweet potatoes at the store, especially since I’m the only one in this house who likes them, but memories of a sweet potato rooting in a Ball jar on my grandmother’s windowsill in February make me smile. So, I carefully wash the most orange, organic sweet potato I can buy in warm water, and submerge one end in a jar. It will produce more shoots than I will need to grow by the end of May, when they can be safely planted outdoors.

The leftover spearmint sprigs are already rooting nicely.

Sometimes the spearmint in the big pot by the Lady Cottage door doesn’t survive the winter, so when there were a few sprigs leftover from the mint purchased to make tiny cucumber-mint sandwiches for a friend’s afternoon tea, it was placed in a glass of water to root. Waste not, want not. The jar is almost filled with roots, so the plants will be put into pots of soil this afternoon, when I go down to bring up the next round of amaryllis bulbs that are budded.

As I write this, I watch a squirrel go head first into the snow to dig up a walnut. Only the tip of his tail is visible. I’m certain he is even more ready for spring than I. Yes, I wish for Spring…but I’d settle for just a little sunshine to make the waiting easier.

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Still searching…

Seeding the favas.

Yes, I’m still searching for a successful method to get a good crop of fava beans, after four seasons. The first year I tried a combination of direct seed and pot grown, just to hedge my bets. I’d love to be able to just direct seed, like the folks in England and Italy can do, but our winters are too cold and seeds just die. I’ve tried planting them directly in spring when I plant peas, but by the time the plants get big enough to bloom, it’s too bloody hot for them to produce well. Supposedly favas prefer temps at 75 degrees F and below, but not long-term freeze. There was a small crop from the pot transplants, but very few from the direct seeded, and usually just a bean or two per pod.

Year 2 was a repeat of both methods, but with an earlier planting date and about the same lackluster results. Year 3 was all pot grown, but two batches of two different varieties, with the dwarf “Robin Hood” producing best. Last year was actually the worst, with most of the plants rotting in our never-ending spring rains, and bees unable to do the pollinating required for beans to form. There was barely enough for one meal. (sigh!)

This year, the seeds were again started in recycled paper tubes, which has worked well in years two and three, but with an earlier start. They are planted 1″ from the top in standard potting soil, and kept moist and at 55 degrees in the basement. I’m also going to experiment by putting the tubes in a small plastic tote, where they will be easy to move and light can penetrate from all sides and top, but with a lid the mice and squirrels won’t be able to eat them, which sometimes happened when they were in the greenhouse or on the bench to harden off in prior years. Once they’ve germinated, the tote will go outdoors on any nice day and stay in the greenhouse at night, which will be cooler than in the basement. As soon as possible, half the plants will go into the ground in the poly-tunnel, and half into another bed with cut-off gallon plastic jugs to cover them if needed. I realize this will require nearly daily opening/closing of the poly-tunnel, and removing/replacing jugs, but the taste of fresh fava beans is worth the extra trouble.

This fast-maturing dwarf variety has produced best in the potager.

The variety is “Robin Hood,” a dwarf from Renee’s Garden Seeds, which of three kinds tried over the years has produced best in our short season for cool weather crops. It just gets too hot too fast here in Indiana for the taller ones that require more time to produce. So, that’s this year’s plan. Wish me luck!

By the way, there is a photo-filled recap of my trip to RHS Wisley, just posted on my website in the February newsletter, if you’d like to take a look. Wisley is an amazing garden!

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It’s Time to Plant the Peppers!

“Blight Buster,” my favorite green peppers

Despite the fact that the ground is snow-covered, the wind is blowing and the temperature was -5 degrees F at dawn, it is time to seed the peppers. This is the first crop that will need the bottom heating mat, so a good scrubbing was the beginning point, having already scrubbed the seeding flats and dipped them in bleach water yesterday.

Many gardeners seed many more varieties of peppers than I. There are pages and pages of peppers in each seed catalog, so deciding which to grow can be difficult. In my farmer market years and my commercial greenhouse years, I grew hundreds of different peppers of all types from mild to the hottest, every color, shape, size and nationality I could find. Now with more limited space and needs, I grow only those peppers that we actually use often and that are highly productive per plant, with only a new variety or two added just for fun each year. Peppers are fairly easy to grow if given warm conditions, adequate water, and good soil in a very sunny location. They really detest cool soil, cool air and cold water.

My go-to peppers for great productivity and basic general usage are:

  1. “Blight Buster” green bell pepper (exclusive from SeedsNSuch) which has out-performed all other bell peppers over the past three years. Thick walled, 4-5″fruits with excellent flavor, 73 days from transplanting to harvest. Ripen to red and the best disease resistance on the market.
Hungarian heirloom “Feher Ozon”
  1. “Feher Ozon” is an heirloom “paprika” pepper (Pinetree Seeds and others) that produces big numbers of big triangular peppers that begin creamy white moving through yellow, orange and then bright red. I harvest at all colors, cut them into strips or dice and pop them into the freezer to provide tasty, colorful peppers for stir-fry, fajitas, casseroles, and soups. 70 days. They are a sweet pepper from Hungary, and can be dehydrated or hung to dry in the red stage, then ground to make paprika. If I could only grow one pepper, this would be it!
Note the stuffed red cherry peppers just right of the melon.
  1. “Red Cherry” sweet pepper (widely available) begin as deep green, slightly oval balls on 2′ plants. Produce continually all season, especially if continually harvested (green or bright red stage.) These little1-2″ “cherries” are one of my go-to summer appetizers, picked fresh and stuffed with egg salad, tuna salad, a basil leaf and a small cube of fresh mozarella, or a pesto-cream cheese mixture. At the end of the season, they are pickled (some plain, some in a sweet pickle brine) to be stuffed for Christmas parties where they add a big pop of color to cheese trays, etc.
Canned pickled red cherry peppers, “Golden Greek” pepperoncini, and sliced jalapenos.
  1. “Golden Greek” pepperoncini (SeedsNSuch) will provide such an abundance (in a small space) of golden-green (ripen through orange to red) 2-4″ long thin-walled peppers that are prized by gourmets. I harvest them all season and pickle them for my husband, who’s a big fan.
  2. “Early Jalapeno” is the only hot pepper I bother to grow now. Unlike many folks, we don’t use great quantities of hot peppers, only enough for salsa, stir-fry, tortilla soup, etc. This variety has proven reliable, and six plants provide more than enough for our needs. 63 days, picked when green to red and open pollinated so seed can be saved (provided NO other variety of peppers are grown within pollinators’ flying distance!) Compact plants and seem to be disease free.
Charming little 2″ “Orange You Sweet” peppers

This year “Orange You Sweet” (E&R) is being grown again, mainly because there’s still seed left and because it is orange, so it adds a color I like. This is a cheese-type pepper, round and somewhat flat, with very thick walls and a sweet flavor. This is another one that I stuff for appetizers, or dice into salads. 65 days. Supposedly can be pickled, but I haven’t.

My two “just for fun” peppers are the hybrid “Sweet Apple Green” (SeedsNSuch) 78 days, which is a 3-4″ “Granny Smith lime-green” bell pepper that matures orange. It is said to get sweeter and sweeter as it matures, with a hint of citrus. I love browsing on peppers as I garden, and am looking forward to munching on this one.

The last pepper was mentioned in so many garden blogs that I read overwinter, that I felt compelled to give it a try. “Corbaci” is another heirloom from Pinetree, who says it is the longest pepper available, with over a dozen 10″ long, tapered peppers per plant. Some remain straight, and some will spiral or curve. They are sweet, mild, edible at any stage from pale yellow to red with a fruity flavor. From Turkey, they are used raw, fried, pickled or dried. 75 days. This just sounds fun, and ought to be striking in the potager.

So, I’m off to the basement to sow peppers, and to check on all the emerging seedlings from the first sowing. It’s so exciting to see ribbons of green. Hopefully, we’ll see some green outdoors soon!

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Oh! What A Beautiful Morning!

Five inches of snow frosting every surface!

Awoke to a beautiful world this morning and rushed out with the camera before the sun was even thinking of coming up. (Although I suspect it is too cloudy to be helpful when it does.) Unfortunately, the cold air clouded the lens faster than I could wipe it clear and click the shutter, so things look a bit murky. It was SO quiet, with not even a baby’s breath of wind or a hint of traffic in the distance. Even the neighbor’s rooster was silent.

The sculpture of the “Tiger Eye” sumac really stand out in these conditions.

I love the stark contrast that highlight the structure of plants. There’s nothing but pure white, white, white and grays to black. One doesn’t get to see the actual form of plants when they are covered in leaves, but now their lines are so apparent.

Aren’t the shadows cast by my beloved elder gorgeous?

The elder was pruned up and thinned out a bit last October, partly to make it easier to walk around and partly so winter aconites could be planted underneath. There were no signs of green at all before this snow, but I’m hopeful they will bloom soon. If I were painting this, I’d need a lot of blues and purples. By this time my fingers were cold, so I hurried indoors to make a pot of tea. While I waited for the kettle to boil, I check my newest acquisition.

A bit of green for the kitchen!

Last week I helped host a tea party, and made the traditional cucumber finger sandwiches, which required fresh mint. A plastic package from the “big” grocery in “town-town” (as opposed to our small grocery in our small town which doesn’t carry such oddities) yielded enough for the sandwiches with a couple of sprigs leftover. Placed in a jar of water, they quickly perked up and are already forming roots. Gotta love those durable mints! They are already stretching a bit, due to our lack of sunshine, so I’ve moved them from the sunless window to under the most-used counter, where the light is frequently on. Sometimes the big pot of mint by the Lady Cottage doesn’t survive the winter, so I’m happy to have a start if needed. Plus it just makes me smile to see a bit of green in the kitchen.

I think this is the snow that prompts me to “winter seed” the poppies, nigella and larkspur in the Cutting Garden. Mixing the seed with a handful of potting soil helps keep the birds from finding it, and provides cover for those that need darkness (larkspur especially!) Later, I’ll be seeding another flat or two indoors and noting what has already germinated in the seeding journal. Even with snow on the ground, the excitement of spring planting and the anticipation of it all is bubbling in my blood. Are you gearing up and smiling more?

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Alpine Strawberries

An Alpine strawberry plant blooms most of the entire growing season!

 

Nothing is so sweet and charming as a tidy, dark green Alpine strawberry plant, hanging with fragrant white flowers and dark red berries.  Fragaria vesca var. semperflorens differs from common garden strawberries and the wild strawberry because it grows as an attractive clump that stays put, without forming runners, so it makes a lovely edging or container plant.  They should always be included in a fairy garden, as long as it has a sunny location.

The pretty three-part leaves have serrated edges that hold dewdrops in the early morning, and because of the leaf shape, the strawberry has been linked to the Triology and carried in religious ceremonies in Europe.  In spring, delicate white blooms with yellow centers are produced in abundance, followed by shiny, bright red fruits.  Often, plants continuing producing fruits until the frosts of autumn shrivel their blooms.  If moved indoors, fruit may be picked all winter! (If one hand pollinates, or has indoor insects!) While the fruits are small compared to today’s commercial strawberries, they are packed with flavor and sweetness.  Alpine strawberries are a delightful way to introduce children to the joys of gardening.

The name strawberry does not come from the common practice of mulching large plantings with straw, but more likely from the Anglo-Saxon word “streauberige” which means “strew.”  In fact, the leaves of wild and alpine strawberries were commonly used as strewing herbs.

 

 

Strawberries are not often thought of as a medicine or a cosmetic, but in former days the berries were used to whiten teeth and to soothe sunburn.  The leaves and berries were common treatments for dysentery, gastro-intestinal problem, urinary diseases, fevers, as a gargle for sore throats, and as a spring tonic to help purify the blood after a long winter.  The leaves were often used as a tea to help excessive menstruation and also as benefit to an easy pregnancy.  Most authorities feel the leaves lose much of their flavor when dried.  Note that only the leaves of the alpine or wild strawberries have significant medicinal properties.  The common garden variety has little or no value.

Alpine strawberries are easily grown from seed, and there are several excellent varieties available in the marketplace.  “Mignonette” has slightly larger berries.  “Rugen” is the most commonly found and “Temptation” is said to be slightly sweeter.  They grow well in any sunny location, reaching a height of about six inches and forming a clump about six inches in diameter.  Older plants can be carefully divided.  Good drainage in winter is necessary to prevent crown rot, so raised beds are excellent.  They grow well in containers.  Indoors in winter, give them as much light as possible and you will be rewarded with berries to garnish salads or beverages.

Although small, alpine strawberries are packed with flavor!

I just seeded a batch last week. Simply sprinkle the seed as carefully as possible onto moist soil, trying not to sew the tiny seeds too thickly. Do not cover with soil, as they need light to germinate. I lay a narrow strip of clear plastic wrap over the rows or cover with a plastic dome. They can take a while to germinate, so be patient. My seeding notes from last year show they were sown Feb. 15 and germinated on March 9. Sown early, they will definitely produce fruit the first year. I have no harvest records, because as soon as they are ripe either myself or visitors to the potager harvest them for an immediate snack!

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